Why one should NOT magic

In response to a question about WHY I don’t like magic, I thought I would open up a topic specifically to discuss the downsides and failures of the magic system in 3.5/d20 specifically, and for those interested, fixes and/or replacements thereof.

Some, but not all, of my personal reasons for why I’m anti-magic:

  • Magic in general is done, redone and, overdone in our age. Been there, done that, revisited it who knows how many times, read about it over and over and over, burnt countless t-shirts about it… I’m just over it. Sick and tired of it, I cringe every time I hear or read the word “magic”. (Keep in mind that I’ve read literally tens of thousands of books in my life - averaged 700 pages (two books) a day ever since high school, for decades covering English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sci-fi/fantasy works. So I’ve read a LOT containing magic.)

  • Athas is supposed to be pro-psionics and anti-magic.That’s the general populace, mind you, not talking about dragon-kings and their rabid fan minions. But I read the rules books and what do I find? Magic everywhere. It sucks. Where’s all the psionics? Not even half of any one of the books are about psionics and how it affects daily life. Magic should be rare and this should be reflected in the rule books with minimal magic related spells and options and tons of psionics offerings instead. Every time I watched someone play Dark Sun, what happened? Everyone wanted to be a defiler or preserver. Just sickened me.

  • TSR’s magic system is frankly, bad. One of the stronger contenders for “how NOT to do magic” out there (although I’ve seen worse). Gygax had to invent spell components and gestures and chants specifically in an attempt to FIX and LIMIT the mage-types. Slow them down, tie them up, mute them, knock them over, and the magic fails. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Does it? Not usually based on what I’ve observed in actual play.

  • I dislike Vancian-based systems in general. Not a fan of the whole “limited number of power slots per day” idea, but if it does have to exist, it shouldn’t without a solid fluff story to support the whys and hows. Which D&D fails to do.

I’ll stop there, that’s good enough to start of with.

.

In the spirit of possible fixes for those who do want to use magic, I offer the following ideas from my own collection:

  • Magic takes one standard action per spell level to cast, minimum, unless the spell says longer. Cantrips are a move action.
  • Cold iron prevents magic (arcane or divine) from working full stop if in contact with it.
  • Cold iron protects against direct magical (arcane or divine) effects from affecting a protected target, but not from secondary effects (such as elemental or physical damage, summons, etc.,).
  • Successful interruption of a spell casting in progress will result in a failure effect ranging from comical to detrimental (for everyone) to deadly (for the caster).
  • Stacking rules update: permanent effects from the same source affecting the same creature, are included in stacking considerations.
  • Stacking rules update: untyped bonuses granted by a specific SFX system (ie: magic, psionics, incarnum, etc.,) are replaced with a bonus type of that SFX system (ie: arcane, divine, psionic, incarnum, etc.). Non-SFX mechanics (feats, class features, race features, etc.) are not affected by this.
  • More of a meta-fix, but ToB:BoNS options are available to martial types at the half-level rate without needing to take a feat or class level to gain access, and they are all considered to be chi-based wherever that matters.

Added up it gives the mage-types a real world reason to need minions, prevents certain types of magical abuse from existing, and boosts martial types, all without completely taking away the archetype of the uber-powerful mysterious mage from the games or stories for those of my players that really want it. They just have to play more carefully, which should be part of the mage stereotype anyway.

3 Likes

I stand with you that magic should be far more rare on Athas. I always found it a little weird how everyone was just kind of cool with Sadira flinging around spells and defiling. I understand Rikus was a little love drunk on her so she might get a pass from him but why did Neeva put up with her? Or Agis?

The Sun runners would be cool I mean they are elves after all.

Still my solution in campaign for pathfinder system was to replace standard vancian with a spell point system. Which is gathered from plant matter. Defiling is faster preserving slower. I’ve made sorcerers both defilers and preservers much stronger since as long as they have spell energy they don’t run out of spells. But my players know that I go by the preservers and defilers interpretation of athasians towards sorcerers. Which is the only good sorcerer is a dead one. So far none of my players has created a mage for this campaign. They are now 9th level players and I’ve finally introduced a few minor magical items. Through their patron.

3 Likes

That’s funny. I rarely have people play mages in my 2E games. But that might be that I have no qualms letting my psions have some real strength. We adjust power score rolls on a sliding scale based on level, I let them have contact and the attack and defense modes for free (based on level as well), etc…

I rarely nerf any powers, although there are some problem ones that have been tweaked. On a balance note, I’ve adjusted disintegrate to not insta-kill every 5% of the time and just given a 6d6 damage to self on a backfire.

I think once players see that, no one wants a spellslinger as their primary unless they have long term goals.

1 Like

Peoples usually don’t like playing mage in my campaign. I make it hard and very dangerous.

4 Likes

I’ve eliminate magic as a player choice in my Dark Sun, but I still haven’t been able to wean myself off of having evil sorcerers in the setting…

Well, it’s heartening to hear that some still hold to the setting theme. I just wish the Athas books represented the same… In any case, it’s also very interesting to hear how everyone handles (or not as the case may be) the existence of magic in the setting. I find it an interesting choice @Rhal-othan you made to effectively slot magic into the “magic=evil category”. What ramifications, if any, do you see from that?

1 Like

I know you reference 3.5/D20, but in AD&D the player’s option: spell & magic book added a delay based on defiler/preserver, your level, and spell level. The delay could send (from my understanding) your spell to the next round(s). Naturally a defiler had a shorter delay than a preserver. I had one DM that said he would be willing eliminate the spell slots for the delays. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to playtest…

It’s basically me emphasizing the Sword & Sorcery trope in my games (though, as I’ve said elsewhere, I sometimes feel it’s in conflict with the other more ‘sci-fi’ elements of the game).

For players who want to play wizard types they always have the psion option.

Also, I may have mentioned elsewhere, I don’t use defilers or preservers. My sorcerer’s are ‘additive’ rather than ‘subtractive’ - most of their magic focuses on summoning creatures from the Outer Darkness. They are widely hated and feared because sometimes they lose control of these beasts adding yet another hazard to the wastes.

Finally my NPCs don’t have PC classes per se. I just treat them as monsters with specific abilities.

Saying magic is ‘overdone’ is a rather broad statement to put it mildly, but I also consider magic to be anything that breaks the laws of physics. That out of the way, I think the mechanics of magic in any game system hinge a lot on the setting itself. For instance, Shadowrun has magic actively exhaust and potentially kill the caster depending on how reckless they’re being. A lot of urban fantasy and sword & sorcery settings have magic actively be dangerous to use. Play fast and loose with magic and you might give everyone kidney stones or open a gate to hell.

Fortunately for us, Dark Sun takes magic in a rather unique direction. So revamping defiling/preserving for a different game system could provide a neat spin on magic. Perhaps magic is exhausting to cast, but takes less of a toll if you actively defile the land. However, if there is little life around you, casting spells taxes your body further still. In the salt flats even magic missiles can be strenuous spells to pull off.

Edit: The key theme here is that magic is drawn from life no matter what you’re doing. So the mechanics should reflect this. Psionics on the other hand is all about a combination of willpower, stamina, and intuition of the user. One approach to this could be making psionic powers rely far more on technique that magic. I could see some systems treat psionic powers similarly to skills, just hopefully not the way 3.5 uses skills.

2 Likes

Incidentally, your rule for 1 action per spell level is precisely how D&D’s Lankhmar setting handled its magic rules. And most of the rest of your proposed rules would fit well within that setting as well.

I love the idea of a “low magic” campaign, and I even tried to set one up once loosely based on the King Arthur stories of Sir James Knowles. Most of the villains were other humans, and when you did encounter a magical beast or item, it was a REALLY big deal.

1 Like

I’m going to be an absolute blasphemer here by saying this, but I don’t think the writing in the Prism Pentad was all that good.

Don’t get me wrong, I adored their world building and character construction (hence why I’m here all these decades later), but the author of these books had…shall we say…limited abilities to predict plausible human behaviour and dialogue.

4 Likes

I’m not sure this qualifies as blasphemous. I literally have never heard someone say that they actually liked the writing in the Prism Pentad. Of course, mediocre writing at best is so common in fantasy that my issues with the series have less to do with writing quality and more Troy Denning’s ability to accidentally create a giant pile of never explained mysteries due to him either changing cannon on a whim or just being bad at tying things together in a logical fashion.

3 Likes

Could you elaborate Bdmdragon? To be clear I don’t disagree with you I’d just like a few examples of these accidents for clarity.

1 Like

All right, it’s been a while since I last read the books so my memory might be a little rusty, but here it goes, in no particular order:

  1. Sadira’s sun wizardry. In book 3 Kaidar (shadow giant) specifically states that what she gained is less than what the champions gained (or states something to that effect, anyway.) Obviously, you would never know it with how the SK’s are portrayed or their abilities in the novel (none of them have sun wizardry or indestructible skin, for example).

  2. The heads of Sacha and Wyan. Are they alive? Undead? No one knows. Undead are discussed in the books, but the heads are never identified as such. What powers do they have? In book 2 they either use dragon magic, or aid Tithian, an apprentice wizard and psionicist, in doing so, but such an incredible display is never repeated. In the prologue of book 3, they appear to summon psionic power to fight Nok before Tithian waves them off. In later books, they just kind of bite a lot and then unceremoniously get torn apart.

  3. Speaking of Nok, what’s up with him? He’s a psionicist, but beyond that is he a druid, a wizard, or even both? A close reading makes it actually seem like he’s a wizard, and, even more bizarrely, can drain animal life, but Troy Denning, and the rest of cannon, made halfling anti-magic, so IDK. Furthermore, who is he really? He’s a big big mystery in books 1 and 3, but his character is pretty much the definition of a setup with no payoff, and that’s before we get into things like him talking from a defiled plant after he died.

  4. The giants in book 4. The book has a confusing and complicated pile of lore around them that might mean all athasian giants evolved from dwarves, or might mean nothing at all, and that’s before we get into things like the Dark Lens maybe granting intelligence to a species or being required to create beast head giants. Oh, and just in general, the books confirm that dwarves once had beards, but now can’t grow them, with no explanation given.

  5. Speaking of giants, what is up with shadow giants and the black? actually, I could go on all day about that one, but let’s just say there’s a lot about them and where they live that feels made up on the spot and wildly inconsistent.

  6. A minor one. Is resurrection possible in Dark Sun lore, according to the Prism Pentad? No one knows. It gets brought up at least twice, once by Tithian in the Obsidian Oracle, asking it Rajaat can grant that power, to which he gets a non committal response, and in book 5, when Sadira thinks about the wraiths storing their life force in gems, and wonders if that means they could be resurrected.

  7. Save the biggest for last. How in the world was Rajaat capable of performing what we saw at the end of prism pentad 5? He’s been trapped in a perfect seal for 10,000 years and he suddenly has the power to move and change the color of the sun, and create life, water, and clouds across a city half the size of the tablelands without blinking? This feels like it should have been a big freaking deal, but the novel just mentions that he has “changed”, and that’s it. What is he, and how was this guy ever defeated?

3 Likes

Concerning #3. Speaking of Nok, what’s up with him? He’s a psionicist, but beyond that is he a druid, a wizard, or even both? A close reading makes it actually seem like he’s a wizard, and, even more bizarrely, can drain animal life, but Troy Denning, and the rest of cannon, made halfling anti-magic, so IDK. Furthermore, who is he really? He’s a big big mystery in books 1 and 3, but his character is pretty much the definition of a setup with no payoff, and that’s before we get into things like him talking from a defiled plant after he died.

Halflings could originally be preserver or defiler illusionists up to level 16 (even though specialists weren’t supposed to be a thing in Athas) as mentioned in the original box set.

2 Likes

Yes, they could, and that explains the Halfling illusionists in book 1. By book 3 however, Troy Denning had developed enough to start dropping in hints to the Blue Age (a Rhulisti in a stasis tank, a hint at the Brown Tide in the Pristine Tower). More importantly, even if he is an illusionist in book 3, he shouldn’t be able to drain animal life. The issue with Troy Denning’s writing is not only that this isn’t explained, but that it’s called out as being weird in the book and then is still never explained (see also, a lot of the stuff above).

Also, I just find it strange that his magic is never clearly identified as wizardry or druidic in nature.

2 Likes

While it’s odd that he’d be a defiler, the idea that a dragon might consume the entire Forest Ridge might cause Nok to be the lesser of two evils? I might have to write some extended backstory on that for my own game.

I have no issue with defiling in general making living beings within the range feel ill or queasy (that’s how I run it in my own game currently). It was even brought up in Defilers and Preservers, but not everyone cares for those rules as a whole. The entire rethink of when defiling happens, between the original box and the revised boxed sets makes everything so muddy. The original defiler class description also makes me think that animals are affected slightly, just not enough to kill or incapacitate.

1 Like

Thats been in official lore since the beginning, so you aren’t wrong.

This is why it’s so weird. Even if he is a wizard, which itself is not confirmed by any source, Nok is pretty clearly not a defiler, but he has created an item that allows the wielder to drain animal life directly a la dragon magic, and, IIRC, demonstrated in book 3 what might be the same ability.

1 Like

Guess who could solve this mess? Troy Denning. Guess who doesn’t remember what he was thinking at the time? Also Troy Denning.

To be fair to Troy Denning, it has been literally decades since he worked on Dark Sun. However, the lack of communication that seems to have occurred between him and the other people working on the setting back in the day is something I feel a little irritated about. I mean, Beyond the Prism Pentad is a travesty in part because it really did nothing whatsoever to actually explain any of the things listed above or many other lingering problems. Like, did nobody at TSR ask him any questions back then? Or was he actually making it up as he went along? Unfortunately, its decades too late to get answers.

2 Likes